Backpacking in Bolivia: Santa Cruz De La Sierra (You’re Not That Far)

I’ll not lie and pretend that I know everything about this city and that I went into every museum and sampled the entire culture, because I didn’t!

BUT, what I did do in Santa Cruz De La Sierra was stay overnight in a swanky FIVE STAR hotel for free of charge and end up adding another city to my list, thanks or no thanks to an aeroplane change by Bolivian Company AeroSur. It was a change I welcomed and was glad of!

So on a blistering hot December night, there I arrived and first stepped foot in Bolivia. This country was hardly high on my hit list as a child. It was probably only my love of football which took me here, well that accompanied for my slight desire to see the desert in the south west of Bolivia. I could hardly forget Paddy Campbell’s prediction that Bolivian midfielder Milton Melgar would score the first goal of the 1994 World Cup. By freak coincidence I have just noticed that Milton Melgar himself was in fact born in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Melgar is on the left of the below photo at a recent charity match in La Paz with Diego Maradona.

Of course in the said match, Bolivia were actually no match for the Germans who won the match 1-0 thanks to Tottenham bound Jurgen Klinsmann. Fast forward 16 years and there I was in Bolivia. 

And no sign of the long haired “pelo largo de Marco Etcheverry”. Hero of that Bolivian qualifying campaign, but he who proceeded to come on as sub against Germany to change the match. Only to be sent off within minutes with a straight red card (as pictured), thus eliminating him from the entire tournament, banned from Bolivia’s last two games, one of which was a boring 0-0 stalemate with South Korea.

The only similarity I could find here was a bunch of 5 South Koreans were bizarrely on my flight. So here’s the story.

I found a cheap and easy flight from Asuncion to La Paz, with a 2 hour stop over in Santa Cruz De La Sierra, however when the first flight was delayed/changed at short notice, it meant the second flight became the first one the next day. It didn’t confuse me one bit, rather enthused me.

What it meant was two options – either spend an entire night at Santa Cruz De La Sierra airport and simply hop on the early plane the next morning. Commonly known as the cheaper option. And as an avid traveller, I even like the charm of spending nights in ridiculous locations such as unknown Bolivian airports. It’s an extra adventure, even if it’s a shit one.

The other option, the more expensive one, and some might say pointless one is to head into the city of Santa Cruz De La Sierra for food, drink and party, and even maybe book a wee hostel to grab a few hours sleep. I ruled out option two in order to save my Bolivianas.

Then a handy spanner was dropped into the equation, thanks to AeroSur. On arrival at Asuncion airport that night, they told me they were putting me up in a hotel for the night in the city centre of Santa Cruz De La Sierra, AND providing me with a hot shower, buses to and from the airport and a wake up call. This couldn’t be right, could it??

I was happy as anything. And when the plane landed, there was no time for transit visas, it was a full stamp on my passport in Santa Cruz De La Sierra and there I was in Bolivia. My Spanish was to be enhanced once again as I chatted at length to a helpful airport worker in the main atrium. He recognised me as a blatant foreigner on the flight. Bolivians, I’ll have you know have darker skin than me, and not blue eyes. Plus they’ve never heard of Belfast.

After a 20 minute wait at Santa Cruz De La Sierra, myself and about 12 others were taken out to a wee minibus out the front. It was quite dark so the sunlight charm of SCDLS was lost on me. 

The 5 South Koreans had jumped in, and we were ushered or whisked to an almost secret location Big Brother style for the night before our morning flight.

When they said free hotel, I really assumed a bed full of fleas or scorpions (which can happen often in Peru and Bolivia) and the hot shower I assumed to be a drip which barely works. To me, a hotel in such a poor country could simply not live up to any of my posh European Exceptions. But actually it eclipsed them. This was an amazing five star!


The hotel we stayed in was the Hotel House Inn, it was elegant, luxurious and somehow the strangest introduction to Bolivia anyone can ever get. It was a known false dawn. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries I have ever been to. To spend my first night there living like a king was simply ridiculously bizarre and really not me at all. But I wasn’t complaining.

On arrival at the hotel lobby, it was obvious the airline company had booked just the exact number of beds, so I’d have a random room mate for the night. He shook his hand and introduced himself in both Spanish and English. I did the same. He was Daniel from Asuncion, Paraguay. He had been there to visit his family and was now returning to La Paz, where he now lives with his wife.

We got into the room, which was posh as you like. Seriously this felt so wrong in Bolivia. We opened the mini bar/fridge and there were two Bolivian beers in it – the brand Pacena. Daniel offered me one, saying he would pay, which he did. He knew I was a backpacker, and he had been a backpacker before and he understood how our rations work.

Having travelled from his native country to his residing country, it felt rude not to accept my first taste of Bolivian beer. And it was good! We also felt peckish and so Daniel asked me if I wanted some food and beers. Being polite I suggested that I didn’t have thirst or hunger, though in the end I was convinced and my first Bolivian Meal was ordered by Daniel on room service with a double hat -trick of Cerveza.

I was able to have a gorgeous hot shower. And this was the best shower I had had (save for God’s rain showers of Iguazu) since leaving my wee room in Perla’s house in Montevideo.

Once out of the shower the food and beer arrived. The food was “A Toby”, this really excited me. Having not seen McDonald’s for a long time, and actually somehow despising the brand in countries that are not westernised, this was a true Bolivian experience.

“Toby” is basically a Bolivian chain of hot food fast food stores, similar to the idea of McDonald’s but of course less global, commercial and as a result, authentically Bolivian. Like a better local version if you like. Daniel had ordered us both a beef meal deal. In simple terms it was basically a Big Mac Meal, but this one was more special, nicer and a welcome taste of Bolivia in the richness of Santa Cruz De La Sierra. The burger was more spicy and sweeter than those I’d had before. The chips were greasy almost to the point they could have been bought in Belfast and the Coke was, well…Coke. I didn’t drink the Coke at the time though, saved it for my morning drink on route back to the airport in SCDLS. Instead it was “Salut” and a couple of beers with Daniel.

Daniel also invited me to stay at his place in La Paz for free, which was amazing and very welcoming. I would of course have said yes had I not already booked myself into the city’s Loki Hostel. I took Daniel’s email, phone number and address. Again as you travel on life’s corridor, you will meet people who are friendly, open and nice. Daniel is one such person. Next time I happen to drop by La Paz, who knows…

After those beers it was a quick sleep and then we were awoken at 5 am (thanks to Daniel arranging a wake up call with reception). I had a few minutes to check out the nearby streets – this posh hotel looked out of place in a typical Bolivian area.

On route to the airport, I savoured the glimpses of this city which I didn’t properly see, but had been granted a free night it. There the busy central streets in dawn.

Here a statue.

Here a football stadium. I don’t miss them anywhere do I?

That’s our minibus to the airport.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra didn’t quite prepare for what was to follow – the height of madness – LA PAZ. Just another story to tell…

The title of this article by the way, refers to a song by rock band The Thrills – Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Fear)

Ciudad/City – Santa Cruz De La Sierra

Population – 1.4 million

Where I Stayed – Hotel House Inn, Parapeti, Downtown Santa Cruz

Nationalities Met – South Korean, Paraguayan, Bolivian

Transport Used – Aerosur Airbus, Aerosur Arranged Minibus

Strange Currencies – Paraguayan Guaranis, American Dollars, Bolivian Bolivianas

Cerveza/Beer – Pacena (Bolivian)

Food – A Toby

Airport Tax – 3$ US Dollars to leave Santa Cruz De La Sierra









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